34 Tulsa Race Massacre Excavation
For helping bring closure to a community rocked by racial violence
It happened a century ago, but the scars of the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre still run deep. What started with a young Black shoeshine vendor accused of assaulting a white elevator operator in Tulsa, Oklahoma, USA escalated over the next few days into the razing of the city's prosperous Black neighborhood, Greenwood.
Few records of the days' events exist, and there's no official count of lives lost during the massacre, though historians believe the number may be as high as 300. A 2001 government report concluded that city officials had provided firearms and ammunition to white individuals, effectively authorizing them to commit violence.
Looking to answer lingering questions, government leaders have launched an interdisciplinary program, using methods including survivor interviews and ground-surveying technology to locate and recover the bodies of those killed.
Headed by Oklahoma state archaeologist Kary Stackelbeck and forensic anthropologist Phoebe Stubblefield, the project broke ground with a test excavation in 2020, followed by a full dig this year. Here, Stackelbeck discusses the project, efforts to engage the community in the process and how the team is building trust through transparency.
Who's involved in this project?
An interdisciplinary team of researchers was amassed about 20 years ago to tackle this subject of the mass graves, but their work was stopped short before they could conduct any excavations. Several of those researchers are engaged in our effort, which involves three committees.
A Historic Context Committee has compiled historical records, documentation, oral histories and other anecdotes being provided by members of the community. The Physical Investigation Committee is charged with taking those site leads and executing the process of the actual physical excavation work. My job is principally trying to find where the graves may be. Upon locating burials, the forensic team analyzes the remains to determine the extent to which they may represent victims. A third team, the Public Oversight Committee, is populated largely with descendants of survivors and other members of Tulsa's African American community. At every stage, we address their concerns, and we don't proceed until we get their approval. During the peak of this latest round of excavations, on any given day we'd have about 30 people onsite who were participating in the process.
What's one way this is different than a typical project you might work on?
While archaeologists are used to collaborating with forensic scientists, the circumstances of this case are very different. Here, we're looking at a 100-year-old crime scene, and our excavation techniques were tailored to maximize the ability of the forensic team to ascertain any indicators of trauma. For example, rather than carefully clean off all skeletal elements and remove them individually, we applied consolidant to some of the more fragile remains and removed them as a block with the surrounding soil. The forensic team could then X-ray them in our onsite lab before the bones started to degrade from the exposure.
What did you discover in the latest excavation?
We're in the early phases of pulling the forensic analysis together, but our excavations revealed evidence of 34 burials, of which we recovered 19. We had one individual who is definitely a gunshot victim, and other individuals who were buried in a disrespectful manner. Our working hypothesis at this location was that if we found one massacre victim, we should find others immediately adjacent—and that may not be the case here.
In archaeology, you're flying blind a lot of the time, and you're going to encounter information and data patterns different than what you maybe anticipated. So, you have to be nimble enough to adjust your excavation strategy to accommodate new information as you encounter it.
How are you measuring the project's success?
I feel like our most recent effort was a success in the sense that I feel good about the collaborative model between our multiple disciplines and our workflow. The unfortunate thing is that we just need more of the victims to cooperate, if you will—we need to find them in the right place. Our methods will ultimately work. It's about having the patience and the fortitude to keep moving forward.
Listen to Kary Stackelbeck explain how transparent communication with community members and other stakeholders helped build trust.
The constant need for consultation with the local community, it is imperative. It is so imperative because there is a very serious trust issue, understandably. I mean, because the people in this local community, this is a thing as the descendants of the survivors, other African American people living in Tulsa, in North Tulsa, you know, they are the inheritors of all of the long-term effects that came after this event, that came after this horrible massacre, and the systemic racism that continues today. Understandably, there is an element of distrust that you have to try and overcome, and that's where us, for the scientific community, the communication is absolutely critical for trying to establish and maintain that trust.
And to have this all happened during COVID. So, we had to come up with a completely altered approach to how do we do this safely in the era of COVID, we couldn’t involve the community in the same way that we had hoped to be able to do so, but we also needed to maintain that transparency. So this was where we ended up, there was like live video feed of our excavation process. We had press at the fence line, very close, which was very close to where we were working every day. And we did daily updates that were posted on social media about what we were finding, regularly posting videos and photographs every step of the way so people can still see and observe what we are doing. And we were doing nearly daily press briefings. It’s a lot of extra communication, all to try and accommodate that need for transparency and making sure that people were aware of what we were doing and how we were doing it.